Invisible Communities: A Glimpse into the Lives of Foreign High-Tech Wives in the United StatesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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As a reseacher of the issues of postcommunist nationalism and gender, I feel a bit guilty writing about the "invisible communities" of foreign high-techs' wives in the United States: the topic is a kind of shadow economy with me. But this story brings a new facet to the discussion of technology and gender, which has been overlooked by research on both brain drain and globalization, for the people in the focus are neither the "brains" nor the feminized labor force which ends up in service industries. They are "dependants," according to the H4 visa they have as family members following their husbands who come to the United States as high-tech experts or new technologies specialists.
Most foreign high-tech specialists are from China, India or the former Soviet Union and the Detroit area attracts them in large numbers with its automobile industries. My focus is on wives who, according to their dependent status, do not have the right to work in the United States. Of these, I concentrate on post-Soviet women with whom I share a common language and general cultural background. Most of the H4 women have university degrees and did not fully realize that following their husbands to the United States would entail a loss of status outside the family. Many others did not see themselves as separate from their family or as staying at home with a new baby. They thought of their situation as very temporary.
While specificities of the high-tech lifestyle remain open for further investigation, what certainly adds to the state of things is the "feminine mystique" tendency of the last decade in eastern/central Europe. Simultaneous with the promotion of market economy, free media and civil society, women began to hear that they had always wanted to stay at home but socialism did not let them do so. "The idea of the necessity, of pleasure, of beauty, finally, of sacredness of housework, of the work for their families, their children, their husbands and, by this, their own happiness is etched from girls' minds starting with early childhood," read a typical 1996 newspaper article. The same tendency that is indoctrinating women into the sacredness of housework as their primary responsibility was working on the masculinity construction, and that new masculinity is very much related to money. The process of new social stratification in eastern/central Europe includes the development of a middle class. With it goes the emergence of a "male subject" who "did not exist" under socialist "negative equality," as Peggy Watson calls it, when men and women were equally deprived of citizenship rights.
The American scenario of foreign high-techs' lives supposedly gives both men and women long sought-after hierarchical masculine and feminine identities, if one is to judge from the following testimony I was able to find on the Russian Ottawa website The site is arranged around survival issues of migratory experience like the costs of living, availability of food to cook borshch (there are 6 recipes), etc.:
Don't wives get mad there without a language, jobs, friends, gossiping and their other female joys?
Galya, Sasha's wife:
… Our regular entertainment is: shopping on the malls, cooking, ordering cosmetics etc. from catalogues, visiting candy bars, taking children to the playground, gossiping, of course… Many of us have our own computers (not shared with husbands and children), so there's reading Internet news from Russia, chattering in "ICQ" (I seek you, that is), apartment interior design, fashions… We never feel bored (there are from 70 to 100 TV channels), swimming pools are at the door, climate and nature are just wonderful. And one more thing. All Russian women as compared to the Canadian ones are just beauties: we dress, and make up, and are very shapely. We are just like queens here! I haven't written anything about availability of services yet, so: there's practically no washing (it's done by machines), there's no necessity to wash the floors - carpeting's everywhere; no heavy grocery bags - men (males) push trolleys right to the cars and so on. Got it? And the last thing: there are more single men here than single women (these do not remain single for a long time), and they often suffer being lonely, and look for a match among Russian girls and envy the married couples terribly… (http://russian.ottawa.com/rophorisms/htm, issue I, 07.05.99).
This piece of cultural evidence touches on a lot of things - gender, domesticity, cultural identity, class, social order, perception of the "other" etc., - that are fascinating to investigate. It is signed by a person who seems to have no other face besides that of being "Sasha's wife," a perfect example of the reconfiguration of social identities arising from a specific status. The revelation that single men suffer being lonely is also important and suggests that women, though being "dependants," are very needed in this new technologies project. For some couples, the marriage decision was even triggered by the decision to migrate.
We've been dating for nine years and I suggested that we should marry several times… but he could not make a decision. His parents objected because I do not have a college degree… Then when he got this job offer, to go to the U.S., we got married, one month before he had to leave… Of course, it would be so difficult for him to be here all alone,
said S. She did not say that they had gotten married because they were important to each other and did not want to separate, but explained that he did not want to be alone and needed someone who could manage the private space of a home. Another woman mentioned that they had discussed the possibility that the husband go to the United States alone for two to three years to earn the money and bring the family later. In every case, the husbands, not the wives, were against being in the United States on their own.
The ways in which the household is important for the economy are common knowledge now; serving as a hotel, restaurant, laundry and babysitting agency, it reproduces the labor force by providing "bed and breakfast" for the male worker and creating an emotional atmosphere that prepares him for the next day of struggle.
For many of those who come to the United States from Europe, a different organization of physical space is a culture shock and a source of additional inequality. Overseas, this country's image is that of Manhattan at its best from coast to coast, so huge suburban spaces of two-story houses, the decaying areas of Detroit or towns built at highway intersections and unfit for social interaction are absorbed with amazement.
The American spatial pattern probably would not be perceived in this way if other venues for social communication or public places existed. However, for many women there are very few because the great distances one has to travel to reach important destinations and the limited public transportation turns those without a car into social cripples and "restricted" consumers. In addition to the fact that there is usually one car in a family, which is needed for the husband to get to work, most women cannot drive, although they learn after two or three years in the United States. The big cities where they lived before provided extensive public transportation networks and cars were a luxury, not a survival necessity. But this fact alone cannot explain the gender difference who possesses a driver's license.
Among the factors that make life in the United States so attractive for many throughout the world, consumption is one of the first (for those who come here for economic reasons, it is definitely so). It is not easy, though, for those trained in a different culture to switch to American consumption practices, which are taken as symbols of status and belonging with a certain group. It is mostly through consumption and access to money that H4 women start seeing their limited opportunities equaling their identities as people with a dependent status:
Here Sergei pays for almost everything with his card…I don't have a card, there's no big necessity to have one, I don't do much shopping, don't buy big things. I pay in cash for the little things I buy… my husband gives me the money for that. If there's something important, we go shopping together… But here you have to come to agreement about everything. Not that he objects, but you have to report about everything you buy… This is not particularly about money, it is just that I have to tell everything…
This is not only about money, but also about general social deprivation. In time, people accommodate and realize the necessity for everyone to have a credit card and a driver's license. While these issues can be resolved rather easily, the structural absence of the right to work is beyond what personal will can change and this is what determines one's power and prestige outside the family:
"Of course, it is boring here. Not having a job… It looks like you are free here. But in fact, you are very dependent…"
The impact of migration and de-professionalization on women's lives also has negative consequences for later integration into the society if the family decides to stay here. Most women are not likely to continue working in their former occupations because they are trained in more culturally bound areas than men and their degrees quite often are not recognized. Men usually encounter upward professional mobility while women generally move downward. When these women enter the labor market, they are very likely to remain in sectors that provide some horizontal mobility but little vertical mobility.
With time, foreign high-techs establish themselves with homes, education for their children, health care, etc., but this social amelioration can also be seen in the context of what happens to men and women as individuals. The victimization of women is not about being "barefoot and pregnant": theirs is a different story and we probably can think of a different definition for these situations. While migrations policies are not necessarily overtly gendered, they are based on the assumption of particular gender roles and gendered effects. They disproportionately disadvantage women, reinforcing dependence on a male partner and making it difficult to gain independent status.
Elena Gapova is a visiting scholar at the Center for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) at the U-M. She is the director of the Center for Gender Studies at the European Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus (CIS).